Nebraska head coach Mike Riley walks from sideline to sideline during the Red-White Spring Game in April.

We're full-bore into college football talking season.

Proceed with caution lest you drown in a sea of nothingness.

You must admit, it's kind of fun.

With that in mind, we go to "Greg in South Carolina," who wasn't wild Friday about one of my opinions on "Early Break" (93.7 FM). I told listeners it would be acceptable and even wise for Nebraska fans to temporarily suspend expectations for the program in 2017 (and perhaps even 2018) as Mike Riley continues to stockpile talent through what appears to be strong recruiting, while establishing his program's culture.

"Our new culture is all style over substance," Greg said. "It's selling stars (recruit rankings) to suckers. It's smoke and mirrors public relations. The Energy Bus. The student-athlete experience. Anything but winning and results. But you see, that's not fooling us smart Nebraska fans because we're not suspending our expectations. We're not donating money for this crap ..."

Greg is a frequent caller to the show. I respect his passion. And let's be clear, he's not alone in his skepticism.

But to be fair, there are plenty of fans (and local media) willing to give Riley a long leash. A very long leash. They're willing to accept a seven- or eight-win regular season in 2017 — Riley's third year in charge — because they buy into Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst's comments that Riley inherited a roster lacking in top-shelf talent.

Riley's building brick by brick, as the A.D. likes to say.

The patient fans (and local media) place ample stock in recruiting rankings — Nebraska currently is ranked seventh by Rivals.com after finishing 20th in the last cycle — and want to see how a roster of "Riley guys" stacks up in the Big Ten. Even Riley's most strident detractors must acknowledge he's created an exceptionally organized recruiting operation, one with vision and focus.

Patient fans are willing to give Nebraska's new 3-4 defense time to develop under first-year coordinator Bob Diaco. They hold out hope that the offense will look much better with quarterback Tanner Lee. They're hopeful a talented offensive line fulfills its potential under Mike Cavanaugh, who faces pressure after the unit's dismal performances to end 2016.

Yes, it all feels somewhat precarious. Having covered Nebraska football since the early 1990s, I can't remember a time when such a substantial number of fans entered a season willing to let a seven- or eight-win season slide. That's a prevalent vibe. That's certainly the vibe among local media who adore Riley.

The Riley "good-guy factor" is largely irrelevant to me, but I do stand squarely in the "patient with Riley" corner even while recognizing this is indeed a precarious time in program history. Nebraska's conference-championship drought stretches to 1999, and many fans (and local media) seem surprisingly OK with it stretching yet another year or two, confident that Riley's recruiting soon will pay dividends and allow Big Red to topple the beasts of the Big Ten East.

The Nebraska recruiting machine will have to pay dividends soon because of that arduous 2018 schedule, which includes trips to Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa.

Is 2019 the most likely target year for Nebraska's conference title drought to end? In Riley's fifth year?

Seems reasonable.

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Patience, amigos.

But my patience has limits.

Even Riley's most ardent defenders must acknowledge the need for on-field improvement. I want to see a team that always shows up prepared to play "good football." (We all know good, hard-nosed football when we see it.) We saw lousy, uninspired football in losses to Iowa and Tennessee to end last season. We saw a nightmare at Ohio State.

If those type of performances continue in 2017, a precarious situation for the program could become untenable. Nebraska would have to consider hitting the reset button.

Talk about scary.

On the other hand, you must leave open the possibility that Nebraska could surprise pundits in 2017 and capture the West Division. Bottom line, being in the hunt for first in the division must be an annual occurrence. Thing is, I think the Huskers already have enough talent to contend in the West.

Which is why I was taken aback last week when, during a guest appearance on the "Sharp and Benning" show (1620 AM), former Nebraska running back Damon Benning asked if a 9-3 regular-season record in 2017 would put Riley in Big Ten coach-of-the-year consideration.

Lovie Smith or DJ Durkin winning nine would merit such an honor. But Riley winning nine?

To be clear, Benning was in no way suggesting 9-3 should be celebrated here. After all, 9-3 has gotten two Husker head coaches fired.

During a Saturday phone conversation, Benning said nine wins would be a nice accomplishment as Riley continues to build the program in his style, which is distinctly different from predecessor Bo Pelini's. Damon noted that Pelini wasn't fired for winning nine games; he was fired because Eichorst felt Pelini reached his ceiling.

Riley fans have faith that Big Ten titles are around the corner.

"On paper, the 2018 roster will be terrific," Benning said.

Riley fans believe the Huskers had to take a few steps backward in order to move forward.

I'm eyeing 2019 as the season it all comes together. I'm willing to be patient in the meantime, as long as "good football" is evident.

If Nebraska continues to languish in 2019, "Greg in South Carolina" can call me a sucker.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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